Welcome to Theme Park Insider! Join the community or log in
Theme Park Insider
Facebook Twitter Google Plus Email Newsletter

May 2009

The New Bizarro Coaster-- Same But Different

By D-Man O'Connell
Published: May 30, 2009 at 10:28 AM

The 2 new Bizarro coasters are opening in Six Flags New England in Massachusetts and Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. They both opened over memorial day weekend.

The former Superman:Ride of Steel at SFNE was taken over by Bizarro. The differences were: the color of the track changed to purple, props such as 2-D buildings were put up, fire bursts were installed close to the track, and fog and lights were put into the tunnels for an inhanced ride experience. Also, the coaster cars were redone. They installed loud-almost too loud stereos in the back of the seat, and the lap bar is different and pushes down on you more.

The former Medusa in SFGAdv was also turned into a Bizarro coaster, with the same differences as the one in New England. Both of the coasters' tracks were not changed at all, so they both deliver the same thrill and airtime that we know and love.

I have had the pleasure of riding Bizarro at SFNE last Wednesday, and boy did it pack a punch. Six Flags took the world's best steel roller coaster, and pushed it over the line. Now, you will be trembling with excitement before and after you get on/off the ride. SFGAdv's Bizarro probably grants the same affect on the riders and coaster lovers.

Comments (4) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: Your pick for best new attraction of 2009?

By Robert Niles
Published: May 29, 2009 at 11:04 AM

I know I shouldn't play favorites like this, but my favorite category in the annual Theme Park Insider Awards is the Best New Attraction honor. It's the one award that's guaranteed to change every year, and honors a great new ride or show that deserves the public's support.

With the industry hurting this year, along with the entire economy, I know that the attention given to this year's winner after the announcement on the Fourth of July weekend will provide a welcome boost to a deserving theme park. But which will it be?

Based on initial reader ratings, I've selected the top five new attraction debuts from the past 12 months. The reader ratings submitted on these new attractions' Theme Park Insider listing pages before June 20 will determine the winner. But I want to get some discussion going about these new rides (and show). Here are several links to the five finalists, including their listing pages, as well as features we've written about these attractions, here on the Blog Flume.

Listing pages (Submit ratings here for ones you've experienced):

Theme Park Insider reviews (Read about them, and sometimes watch):

If you've been fortunate enough to experience any of these attractions, I hope that you will click through on those listing pages and submit a rating and comment. (If you have not been, please do not submit a rating on an attraction you've not experienced first-hand.)

Whether you've been yet on any of these or not, I'd love to hear your initial impressions, based on what you've read or seen here on TPI or elsewhere. So let's put it to a vote, shall we?

Break down this year's race for Best New Attraction by submitting your expert analysis in the comments, please. And have a great weekend!

Comments (26) | Archive Link

Theme park deals, discounts and promo codes for June 2009

By Robert Niles
Published: May 28, 2009 at 12:53 PM

On the final Thursday of each month I post the best current discounts that I've found on tickets to top theme parks. Feel free to post any additional discounts or promo codes that you know of, in the comments. (I'll update this listing as you post better deals.)

Park PR people, please post your deals in the comments, or e-mail me.

Check Walt Disney World's website at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/special-offers/ for current deals. Now featuring free Disney Dining Plan on 5-night, 6-day packages, valid for stays most nights Aug. 16 to Oct. 3.

At Disneyland, the park's Special Offers page lists:

  • A 5-day park-hopper ticket for the price of a 3-day park-hopper
  • Book three nights' hotel and park admission, and get two additional day/nights free, at selected area hotels.

    A 3-day park-hopper ticket for $99, available to local residents, will go on sale June 1, both on the website and at area grocery stores.

    Both Disney World and Disneyland continue to offer free admission on your birthday, too.

    This month on Universal Orlando's website, http://www.universalorlando.com/tickets/hot-deals.html:

  • $99 7-day, 2-park ticket
  • Buy 4 nights hotel, get two 2-park unlimited admission tickets.
  • Get 1 free 2-park kids' ticket with each paid adult ticket and hotel purchase.
  • Layoff protection plan; deposits refunded if you lose your job before your trip.

    At Universal Studios Hollywood, these deals are available:

  • Two days for the price of one, for out-of-town visitors
  • 10% off all-you-can-eat pass
  • Buy one day, get the rest of the year free, for local residents.

    AAA offers a one-day Universal Hollywood ticket for $54.99. (The AAA deals for Universal Orlando are no better than the $99 7-day pass available on the Universal website.)

    Last week, Universal Hollywood announced that it would offer a six-month pass to local residents for $60 (presumably replacing the buy-a-day, get-the-year deal), but it has not made that available for purchase on the website yet.

    SeaWorld Orlando offers these deals on its website:

  • Adult tickets at the kids' price, $64.95, with a second day free.
  • Book three nights' hotel and park admission, and get two additional day/nights free, at selected area hotels.

    For SeaWorld San Diego, use the promo code SWCAAASmr09 at SeaWorldSanDiego.com for the following deals:

  • Two Fun Cards (admission for the rest of 2009) for $119
  • Adults at kids' price and kids at half price

    Additional AAA discounts are available at AAA.com/seaworld.

    Busch Gardens
    The Busch Gardens Williamsburg special offers page promotes its Fun Card for $59.95.

    At Busch Gardens Tampa, the special offers page adults at kids price, $59.95, with a second day free.

    If you are in AAA, you can get Busch Gardens Williamsburg tickets for $51.95 (adult) and $41.95 (kids) using the Busch AAA link. The Busch Gardens Tampa AAA offer is no better than that available on the BGT website.

    Six Flags
    Six Flags' tickets website is at http://www.sixflags.com/national/tickets/Tickets.aspx. Top deals are

  • Buy one $59.99 ticket online, get one free to Six Flags Magic Mountain
  • Everyone pays kids' price of $34.99 to Six Flags Great America
  • $10 off ($39.99) to Six Flags Great Adventure

    Legoland California
    You can get one-day tickets via the Legoland website for $53 (adults) and $48 (kids).

    In addition, promo codes good for $10-$17 off each ticket are available from RetailMeNot.

  • Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Top theme park hotel spotlight: Universal's Portofino Bay and Hard Rock Hotels

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 28, 2009 at 12:10 PM

    With two roller coaster premieres last Thursday, I didn't have a chance to post our weekly feature on one of the hotels vying for this year's 'best hotel' award in the 2009 Theme Park Insider Awards. So today, we'll put the spotlight on two, both from the Universal Orlando Resort.

    Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel

    We'll start with Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel, the 2002 winner of the Best Theme Park Hotel Award.

    Also up for consideration is Universal's Hard Rock Hotel.

    Universal's Hard Rock Hotel

    Both hotels, along with Universal's Royal Pacific, offer unlimited front-of-the-line access to attractions at Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure, earning both hotels wide-spread praise from Theme Park Insider readers, in addition to the hotels' accommodations, dining and services.

    If you've stayed in one (or both) of these hotels within the past year, please click on their names to go to their Theme Park Insider listing pages, where you can submit your rating and comment.

    We'll announce the winners on the Fourth of July, based on cumulative reader ratings submitted over the past 12 months. That's why it's important that you click over to our park listings page to submit your rating for any rides, shows, restaurants and hotels you've been to over the past year. Just pick the parks you've visited in that time, click their names on that page, then click on the locations you'd like to rate.

    Once you've rated one, you'll be given links to the other attractions and restaurants in that park, so you don't have to keep clicking back and forth. If you want to rate a different park, just return to the park listings page, or click the park's link in the green column on the right side of the page.

    If you've not submitted ratings on Theme Park Insider before (and you do not need to register first), please read our guide for rating before you start. Thanks for rating, and thanks for reading Theme Park Insider.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Restaurant review: Mythos at Universal's Islands of Adventure -- still the best?

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: May 27, 2009 at 2:58 PM

    Just posted a review of Mythos at Universal's Islands of Adventure, one of five finalists in Theme Park Insider's search for the best theme park restaurant -- and a six-time winner of the title.

    Interior of Mythos

    Ten years after it opened, it isn't the restaurant that executive chef Steven Jayson wanted, but it is, apparently, what park guests want. It's a better restaurant than the one I originally reviewed in August of 1999. But is it the best?

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: The most difficult question, ever

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 26, 2009 at 11:00 AM

    What's the single most difficult thing a theme park cast member is ever called upon to do?

    Move a crowd of people off the street and behind a Magic Kingdom parade barrier? Maybe, but with a strong voice and a stronger attitude, that's really no big deal.

    Calm a crying child before he stops the line at load? Also tricky, but a warm smile and kneeling down to a child's eye level do wonderful things.

    Wiping up a "protein spill" after said child finishes that ride? Disgusting, but less so once one discovers that invaluable substance, "Vo-Ban."

    No, this single most difficult thing a theme park employee has to do is...

    Ask a women if she is pregnant.

    If she says 'yes,' hey, not only have you done your job well, but maybe you also just prevented a horrible incident that could have compromised her pregnancy.

    But if she says 'no'... oh my heaven, hell hath no fury than a woman mistaken for a pregnant one.

    I'll always remember one soul-destroying exchange I witnessed at Walt Disney World's Big Thunder Mountain load platform:

    "Excuse me, ma'am, but are you pregnant?"

    "PREGNANT? No! What are you saying, do I look FAT?"

    "Um," (awkward pause) "actually, I was saying that I thought you looked, maybe, pregnant."

    At this moment, every other operator on the platform looks away, trying to shrink behind the nearest stanchion, or, ideally, into a hole in the floor.

    "I AM NOT PREGNANT! Oh my God," the young woman then buries her head into the friend's chest and sobs. "they think I look fat. Let's get out of here!"

    Then they cross over the train and out the station, as the poor cast member who asked her the question looks like he'd just as soon throw himself in front of said train.

    Bad times, all around.

    Still, you've got to ask. The consequence of letting an expectant mother on some rides can be horrific. (Insider tip: When rides bar pregnant riders, it's not just because the ride's normal operation is too rough for an expectant mother. It's because of what might happen should the attraction shut down in mid-ride. Trust me, you do not want a pregnant belly anywhere near a lap bar when a roller coaster hits a safety brake.)

    I never, ever wanted to be that cast member, as humiliated asking the question as that poor woman felt having to answer it. Which is why I felt the weight of the world lift from me one day as I discovered an impromptu solution.

    A maybe-pregnant, maybe-not young woman was walking down the platform at load. As she walked closer, and the moment of truth approached, I turned to the pair of teenage boys in front of me and asked, in a booming voice with a huge smile on my face...

    "Are you pregnant?"

    They looked at me like I was nuts. But I didn't wait for an answer. I then asked the elderly ladies behind them the same question.

    "Are you pregnant?"

    She just laughed. To the burly biker dudes behind them,

    "Are you pregnant?"

    They laughed, too, as the woman-in-question finally approached, laughing along with the rest of the platform.

    "No," she said.

    Soul-crushing moment averted!

    I kept asking down the line for that entire train, just for appearances. That became my SOP for every potential pregnancy then on: ask *everyone* around the woman in question if they were pregnant, so that the woman would not feel singled out.

    Many times, I saw a panicked look on the woman's face as I approached, and I knew that she would be answering 'yes.' When that happened, I stopped the schtick, changed to an earnest expression of concern and explained, "Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, ma'am, but we can't allow expectant mothers to ride. Here, please come stand right over here," as I would help her across the train to the unload side and changed my expression to a wide smile, "and you can wait for your group while they ride."

    Never failed, and no one ever complained.

    Please share your incredibly awkward pregnancy-related theme park stories, in the comments.

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Whom would you like to meet at SeaWorld?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 22, 2009 at 10:18 AM

    Last summer, I spent the day at SeaWorld San Diego and had the chance to get in the tank with the park's Beluga Whales.

    As part of this year's Theme Park Insider roadtrip, I'm mulling what other behind-the-scenes things I can bring to you this year. But the cool thing about SeaWorld's animal interaction programs is that they're open to anyone. (Anyone in decent health, doesn't mind hanging around large marine mammals, and can pay the fee, of course.)

    You can find which programs are now available by visiting SeaWorld.com, clicking to your park, then looking for the "Animal Interactions" link.

    Which brings me to this week's vote. Assuming the fee were no object, which animal would you most like to get in the water with? Note that Shamu is not an option. SeaWorld might let you shake Shamu's hand fin, but no one but the pros gets in the tank with the killer whales.

    Robert Niles with Shamu at SeaWorld San Diego

    (The poll options are based on current interaction options, listed at the three SeaWorld parks.)

    Let's talk about behind-the-scenes tours and events at theme parks, in the comments. Have a great weekend!

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    Take a ride on Six Flags' Terminator Salvation: The Ride [With Video]

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 21, 2009 at 7:48 PM

    Can we change the future? That seems to be one of the dominant questions posed by the seriously-confused timeline of the Terminator films. Today at Magic Mountain, Six Flags debuted Terminator Salvation: The Ride, which might as well ask the question: Can one ride help change Six Flags' future, as well?

    Exterior of Terminator Salvation queue

    With Terminator Salvation, Magic Mountain offers a cheeky, self-referential attraction that, frankly, reminds me more of what I'd find in a Universal Studios theme park than anything Six Flags has offered in the past.

    The queue starts in typical Six Flags fashion, with a back-and-forth queue on a concrete slab. But the queue soon moves inside the GCI wooden coaster's track, eventually leading into a - gasp!- themed preshow theater.

    Like last year's Dark Knight Coaster from Six Flags (which did Magic Mountain did not install), Terminator Salvation's preshow features a cross-over appearance by stars from the film. Moon Bloodgood and rapper Common set up the story behind the ride: We're pinned down by "The Machines" that are fighting to exterminate the human race.

    Exterior of Terminator Salvation queue

    The twist? (And I'm gonna totally spoil this...) Common asks Bloodgood for her location, and she reports... "West of the 5, just north of Valencia."

    That's right, she's trapped at Magic Mountain. The camera pulls back, and we see her outside the coaster, yards from where we stand. It's a post-apocalyptic, bomb-blasted Magic Mountain (the Terminator timeline merges with Fox-TV's 24?), ground zero in the war between man and machine.

    For a theme park that aspires to family-friendliness by rising beyond a past too closely tied to offering simply the biggest and baddest twisted metal on the planet, the irony doesn't simply drip off the screen... it floods.

    Exterior of Terminator Salvation queue

    "Magic Mountain," Common exclaims, "that place has changed hands lots of times." Okay, I know he's supposed to be talking about the battle between the humans and the machines, but it's a great, self-deprecating corporate joke nevertheless.

    Anyway, the machines are closing in, and the only way to get past them is... to ride the coaster train to safety. I fear that most riders will just enjoy the cool dark of the room, then keep talking with their buddies, drowning out the preshow narrative. That'd be a shame, because Terminator Salvation's preshow is the most cleverly ironic I've yet seen.

    As for the ride itself, Terminator Salvation is much the same GCI model as the beloved Thunderhead at Dollywood. A 100-foot lift hill drops us into a series of lightning-fast, yet graceful, turns, highlighted by a station-shuddering fly-through and a couple of cooling mist tunnels, well welcomed in the Valencia heat.

    Magic Mountain president Jay Thomas joined me for the ride:

    Terminator Salvation's Achilles' heel will be rider capacity. With two 22-person trains on the track, and about a cycle time just under four minutes, we're looking at approximately 600-800 riders per hour. Okay for a wooden coaster, but not great for a theme park trying to keep wait times under an hour. Put this ride at Universal Studios, surrounded by high-capacity, people-absorbing attractions to take the pressure off, and Terminator Salvation would be a certain hit. But at Magic Mountain, I fear that massive initial waits will lead too many thrill-seeking fans to dismiss this coaster.

    No, I wouldn't wait more than an hour for it, either. But Terminator Salvation's already become my favorite ride at Magic Mountain. Filled with giddy fun and smart story-telling, this is a ride not for a thrill junkie, but for a theme park fan.

    As appropriate for a Terminator-themed attraction, let me say this: It's about time.

    Comments (29) | Archive Link

    Take a ride on SeaWorld's Manta: POV video

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 21, 2009 at 5:16 PM

    I stayed behind in Los Angeles today, to ride Magic Mountain's Terminator Salvation roller coaster (review coming later tonight), so I asked Theme Park Insider reader Gareth H to step up and take a ride on SeaWorld Orlando's Manta for us on the ride's official media day.

    Would you like to ride along - virtually, at least? Well, check out the video:

    Thanks, Gareth!

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    Goodbye, Kiddieland. Chicagoland icon closes after 80 years

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: May 21, 2009 at 7:16 AM

    Kiddieland, a small amusement park in Melrose Park of the Chicagoland area is closing after this summer after being open after 80 years. The oldest of the current Illinois parks, they are the next victims of the current recession. While not as big as Six Flags, Disney, or Universal, it was much more affordable than the big ones! I know that we do not cover Kiddieland on Themeparkinsider.com, but I wanted to publish this sad news to a theme park from the past before Disney, before Universal, before Six Flags. You can find out more about this hidden gem of Chicagoland from the Chicago Sun-Times, and the amusement park's website.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Restaurant Review: Epcot's Le Cellier Steakhouse

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: May 20, 2009 at 11:22 AM

    It's week two of my reviews for the finalists in this year's Theme Park Insider's search for Best Theme Park Restaurant.

    Last week I told you about Hollywood Brown Derby. This week we visit Le Cellier at Epcot's Canada pavilion. This steakhouse has loads of fans, but frankly I don't get it.

    Click to the reader review page to submit your rating for Le Cellier, which will be used to determine the winner in this year's awards.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Kong roars back to Universal Hollywood in 4D experience

    By J. Dana
    Published: May 20, 2009 at 8:35 AM

    Okay, we all knew this was happening, but Universal Studios has officially announced the details about its King Kong experience at its Hollywood, CA, theme park -- which is scheduled to open in summer 2010. As we've all heard, the Studio Tour is getting a major re-do, with huge flatscreens and -- for the King Kong section -- 3D glasses for what Universal describes as "a 4D" attraction.

    Sounds pretty awesome: they're using a combination of robotics and extensive 3D projections to put guests in the middle of the cave of giant bats, then we rumble and rattle as Kong fights a dinosaur (or two) all around us. It's all based on Peter Jackson's 2005 version, which raked in over $700 million for Universal (counting DVD sales). It's the 4th highest gross of any Universal film.

    This all came about because of the fire that destroyed much of the backlot. Universal is putting that insurance money to good use. For more info, click below (deadline hollywood by Nikki Finke is the better story):

    Deadline Hollywood by Nikki Finke

    Los Angeles Times article

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Announcing Theme Park Insider's 2009 Summer Roadtrip

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 18, 2009 at 9:30 PM

    I'm going on a roadtrip.

    This summer, my family's loading up the Prius for an epic, 33-day trip across the country and back. Of course, we'll be visiting several theme parks along the way.

    I've long believed that planning a trip can be just as fun as taking it, and I'm deep into the planning process now. An atlas lies on my nightstand, and I've used both it and Google Maps to plot the best routes to each of the nightly destinations we've planned. We'll be staying with family and friends most of the evenings during the trip, with 12 hotel nights mixed in.

    My latest obsession has been trying to find good places to eat along the way. By good places, I'm trying for reasonably-priced, locally-owned and operated casual restaurants that serve locally-grown food from independent farmers and bakers. I'm trying to show my kids their country, and I'd like to show them at least a few places that are not the same old chains, or allegedly "mom and pop" joints that actually get their food off the same Sysco truck as a million other restaurants.

    The best example I've found so far is Local Burger in Lawrence, Kansas, where we'll be eating for dinner on the fourth night of our trip. (We're starting in mid-July.) If anyone has any other, similar suggestions, lemme know.

    The route? We'll be taking I-15 up from Los Angeles to Utah, where we'll hop on I-70. After a day in Denver, we'll proceed on I-70 to St. Louis, where we'll switch to I-64. After a detour up to Bloomington in Indiana, where Laurie and I met at IU, we'll be in Cincinnati for a week.

    From there, it's back up to I-70 and over to Washington, D.C. for a long weekend. We'll then drive down to Williamsburg, Virginia for several days, then make our way to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee via I-85 and I-40, with a stop in Durham, North Carolina. We're planning taking the coastal route from the Smokies, I-26 to I-95, our on way down to Florida, where we'll spend another week in Orlando.

    Finally, we'll drive up to the 10, which we will take west back across the country, with stops in New Orleans, Austin, Texas and southern New Mexico.

    The theme parks we'll be visiting? Holiday World in southern Indiana, Kings Island outside Cincinnati, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Dollywood, SeaWorld Orlando and the two Universal Orlando parks. (Both the kids will have done their birthdays at Disneyland in the three weeks before our trip, so we're not feeling a huge need to add Disney World into the trip. But who knows? Schedules change.)

    I will file photo-filled trip reports from each of the parks we visit, along with blog posts from several other interesting sites we find along the way.

    Here's what I'd love to hear from you, Theme Park Insider readers. First, those restaurant suggestions. Next, touring plans for the four non-Orlando parks we'll be visiting. What are the can't miss rides and restaurants in each? And in which order should we see them? What are the best places to stay in or around these parks?

    And finally, what stories and features would you like to read from each of these parks? (Including the Orlando ones.) I know that a lot of folks won't be in the position this summer to take the vacation they'd like to take, so I want to do what we can to tell some great stories that help folks see, hear and experience some of the sights that they might be missing.

    And, yes, I recognize that we're insane for planning this. But it's gonna be fun. And I'm going to enjoy using the Blog Flume to help bring TPI readers along for the ride.

    Comments (41) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: When VIPs go MIA

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 17, 2009 at 11:14 PM

    If you spend enough time at a major theme park like those at Walt Disney World, you're going to meet some celebrities. As I wrote a couple weeks back, I once watched a showing of the Country Bear Jamboree next to George Lucas at the Magic Kingdom. I made change for Dustin Hoffman at the Shootin' Arcade, loaded Michael Jackson and his entourage onto a boat at Pirates of the Caribbean, and watched a young Alexa Ray Joel play with a couple fellow cast members while her dad, Billy, and his band rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

    But my favorite celebrity story appeals to the political science major in me. One late night at Pirates, about an hour before close, I was working as the lead, hanging out in tower talking about who knows what. (Tower is the position up above the loading docks where a cast member dispatches the boats into the attraction and watched the cameras that monitor the ride. Don't worry, I've got plenty of um, interesting, security camera stories for future posts.)

    The cast member working load calls me on the intercom: "Um, there's a VIP hostess here who's looking for the VIP corridor."

    At Pirates, like at many other attractions, we had a VIP, or "back door," entrance through which tour guides could bring through celebrities and other individuals whom Disney management allowed to bypass the regular queue. But rarely did VIP tours come through after 10pm. And when they did, the tour host usually knew better than to bother with the VIP entrance. If there's no one in the regular queue, what's the point of skipping it?

    I suspect that Mindy McClueless, though, had been told to take her charges through the VIP entrance, so, dadgum it, that's what she was going to do.

    If only she had known where it was.

    So I walked down the steps to the queue and met the hostess, figuring that I'd just direct them to go ahead and get into one of the empty boats we were cycling through the ride. But as soon as I got to her, I found that wasn't going to work.

    "Hi, I'm Robert," I said to her, noticing that something important was missing from the scene. "Uh... so where's your VIP?"

    "Oh, he got tired of walking. So he's sitting on a bench back in the queue."

    Now, I never trained as a VIP host, but I'm pretty sure that the one thing you weren't supposed to do was leave your VIP in a public area while you wandered off. So I started, briskly, walking up the queue.

    "Perhaps we should find him then," I said to her, doing my Disney best to avoid adding, "you idiot."

    We turned three corners, and there, sitting with his wife in the middle of an empty Pirates of the Caribbean queue was Jacques Chirac, the then-mayor of Paris and former prime minister of France, whom I knew from my poli sci classes at Northwestern was tipped by many to be the next President of France (which he did become in 1995).

    Jacques Chirac"Bonjour, Monsieur Chirac," I said to him, having no idea if this was appropriate - either diplomatically or grammatically. But, hey, the guy ran a NATO country and was sitting in my queue. I figured it rude not to suck up and say hi.

    He stood up to shake my hand, responding in French, so I had to fess up.

    "Uh, that's all the French I know. Sorry. Would you like to follow me onto the ride?"

    Ignoring Mindy McClueless, I swept my arm toward the passageway, in the direction of the loading platform, and started walking. The Chiracs followed, with Mindy trailing. The Chiracs chatted between themselves, in French, a conversation that I imagined went something like:

    "Ah, I am so impressed by this intelligent young man! What an excellent leader he will be someday!"

    But, probably, went something more like:

    "Who the hell are Mickey and Minnie McClueless here, and why does it take both of them to get us on a friggin' empty amusement park ride? EuroDisney is so going to blow, by the way."

    In the comments, please share your favorite personal encounter with a celebrity in a theme park.

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    Restaurant review: Sanaa at Kidani Village

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: May 17, 2009 at 9:17 AM

    Just posted a review of Sanaa, the new Indian-inspired African resaurant at Walt Disney World's Kidani Village, near Animal Kingdom Lodge. The food is surprisingly good, and the experience, which might include giraffes galloping by and other beasts grazing outside the window, is unique. Read the review at scottjosephorlando.com.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Happy 20th Birthday to Cedar Point's Magnum XL-200

    By Therese F
    Published: May 15, 2009 at 3:04 PM

    Happy Birthday to Cedar Point's Magnum XL-200! It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since Magnum opened. At the time it was the first roller coaster over 200 feet tall. Still seems like yesterday when it first took my breath away.

    Magnum XL-200

    [Editor's note: It's Cedar Point's opening weekend. Trip reports and jealousy toward those attending, in the comments, please.]

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: The best 'little' theme park in America?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 15, 2009 at 8:40 AM

    Let's show a little love for the "little" parks today, shall we?

    What is your favorite "small park" in the United States? And by small park, I'm not talking specifically about physical size. I mean parks that fall below the top 20 in annual attendance, as estimated by ERA, and that are not owned by one of the big five U.S. chains: Disney, Universal, Busch, Six Flags and Cedar Fair.

    I've selected eight of these parks, which either are listed here on Theme Park Insider, or that readers have written about in the recent past. Pick your favorite, then tell us in the comments why you think more folks should visit this park. (I've added a "none of the above" option in case you've not been to any of these parks.)

    Thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider, and have a great weekend!

    Comments (60) | Archive Link

    Top theme park hotel spotlight: Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 14, 2009 at 9:49 PM

    In preparation for the announcement of this year's Theme Park Insider Awards on July 4, we're looking at some of the top contenders in the four award categories. Today, we start our look at the top five hotels to date in the Theme Park Insider reader ratings. (By the way, both these and the restaurants that Scott Joseph's reviewing are being profiled in no particular order, so don't read anything into that.)

    This week, we spotlight Disney's Grand Floridian Resort at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

    Disney's Grand Floridian Resort

    Disney says that the Grand Floridian "conjures the splendor of the Sunshine State's golden era." West coasters know, though, that the Grand Floridian borrowed its look not from a Florida landmark, but from San Diego's Hotel del Coronado. Of course, the Hotel del Coronado earned its fame as the setting for the classic Marilyn Monroe flick "Some Like It Hot," where the hotel stood in for... a Florida seaside resort. So it all evens out, I guess.

    Architecture aside, the Grand Floridian earns raves from many readers for its service, its fine dining and not least for its proximity to the Magic Kingdom. It's the closest hotel to the world's most popular theme park. As with other Disney hotels, guests get free transportation to and from the Orlando airport, as well as admission to Extra Magic Hours at the Disney theme parks. But the Grand Floridian is one of just three Disney resorts with monorail service.

    No, it's not cheap, but none of the top hotels vying for the Theme Park Insider Award are. But a once-in-a-lifetime splurge can be worth the expense if it delivers a once-in-a-lifetime thrilling experience.

    Does the Grand Floridian deliver to justify its price? Is it the best theme park hotel around? If you've stayed at the Grand Floridian in the past 12 months, please click over to its TPI listing page and submit a rating and review. We'd love to hear what you think.

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Restaurant Review: Disney's Hollywood Brown Derby

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: May 13, 2009 at 10:14 AM

    Over the next several weeks I'll be posting my reviews of the finalists in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards' "Best Theme Park Restaurant" competition. This week it's Disney's Hollywood Brown Derby, which really took me back in time -- not to the 1930s of the original BD but to 20 years ago when this version first opened along with what was then Disney's MGM Studios theme park. How things change, and yet not.

    Read the full review at scottjosephorlando.com [link updated], and submit your rating for The Hollywood Brown Derby on TPI's listing page.

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    New faces and old places at Disney's California Adventure

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 12, 2009 at 9:39 PM

    Last month, Laurie and I visited Disneyland, me using my annual pass and Laurie her SoCal resident 2fer ticket. Today, we used the back half of her ticket on a visit to Disney's California Adventure.

    The big news at DCA this month is the opening of Mickey's Fun Wheel, a retheming of the park's former "Sun Wheel" Ferris Wheel.

    Mickey's Fun Wheel, with construction work for the World of Color lagoon show continuing, in the foreground.

    Essentially, all that's changed on the ride is the replacement of the Sun face with an old-school Mickey face. It still offers the same ride, with a mix of stationary and sliding gondola cars.

    But Disney's slapped a big red "NEW" next to it on the guidemap, so the ride posted a mid-day 45 minute wait, when the wait on days like today before the rehab rarely topped 15 minutes. (Like most Ferris Wheels, this is a sloooow loader, with low capacity.)

    Like on our earlier trip to Disneyland, our main goal for the visit was culinary. Today, we planned a lunch at the Wine Country Trattoria, the last remaining non-character table service restaurant in California Adventure.

    For a restaurant smack in the middle of the park, this place is a bit hard to find. It lies above the street level, in the old Mondavi complex, next to the Blue Sky Cellar attraction preview exhibit. I walked right by it on my first attempt.

    When the park first opened, Wine Country Trattoria was the mid-range alternative to the fine dining Vineyard Room, now a special events lounge upstairs from the Trattoria. Today, the Trattoria offers salads, panini, lasagna and desserts, with most entrees in the $10-15 range.

    The restaurant offers both indoor and patio seating, though the look of the interior is noting spectacular. It's a trattoria, after all; it's supposed to be more relaxed than a formal restaurant. The seating here reflects that tone, with dark metal chairs and travertine tables that one might find on any Orange Coast family's patio.

    We were among the first seated in the restaurant when we arrived at quarter 'til noon (no reservations needed). California Adventure's running its annual Food and Wine Festival this month, but no events interfered with getting a table immediately at the Trattoria. Within two minutes of seating, a waiter brought us a basket of breadsticks.

    At first glance, I anticipated something crusty and hot from the oven, with an open, airy crumb, accompanied by what looked like a roasted pepper spread. Instead, we found room-temperature bread, with no crust worth noting and the same dense crumb one would find from store-shelf bread. And a non-descript sun-dried tomato spread, to boot. We didn't finish a single stick.

    Pushing the breadsticks aside, Laurie started her meal with a house salad.

    She reported it fine, nothing spectacular. The speed with which is appeared, plus the temperature and taste, suggested that it had been plated well in advance, and kept in the fridge until ordering.

    For our main course, I opted for the chicken panini, with provolone, spinach, artichoke hearts and roma tomatoes. It came with an olive-dressed pasta salad and grapes, with a stone-ground mustard on the side.

    Laurie selected the chicken alfredo lasagna, layered with poached chicken, spinach, alfredo sauce and loads and loads of cheese.

    While we both liked the taste of the lasagna, we agreed that the portion size was simply too much for such a rich entree. We both preferred the fresh taste and mix of texture in the panini. If we were to order the lasagna again, we agreed that one of us would order a salad as well and we'd simply share the two. (The Trattoria charges for split plates, but the charge is easily avoided if everyone orders one thing and shares.) But we'd probably split the panini and try a soup, instead.

    For dessert, we took our server's suggestion and opted for the panna cotta, topped with fresh berries and honey.

    We loved the choice, and plowed through the berries before I could snap a decent photo.

    In all, we spent about $40 for one salad, one Coke, two entrees and a dessert. By Southern California standards, that's quite reasonable for a sit-down restaurant lunch. And by theme park standards, the Wine Country Trattoria beats anything else in California Adventure by a wine country mile. Still, the heavy hand with the cheese, the prefab house salad and the modest atmosphere place this in the middle of that country road: Good, but not great.

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Orlando restaurant critic reviews the top theme park restaurants

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 12, 2009 at 6:46 PM

    Every year, on the Fourth of July, we present the Theme Park Insider Awards to the very best in the theme park industry. As in previous years, this year's awards will be:
  • Best Theme Park
  • Best New Attraction
  • Best Theme Park Hotel
  • Best Theme Park Restaurant
  • All the Theme Park Insider Awards are determined by the average reader rating for eligible locations, based on voting from the previous 12 months. Voting will close on June 20. We'll talk more about the first three categories in the weeks to come. But today, I'd like to talk about the Best Theme Park Restaurant award.

    Based on voting to date, I've identified the top restaurants, the ones that appear to have the best chance to win this year's award, and I've shared those names with Orlando food critic Scott Joseph. Starting tomorrow, and on each Wednesday for the next several weeks, Scott will be reviewing these restaurants on scottjosephorlando.com. He also will post links to his reviews here on Theme Park Insider's Blog Flume.

    I hope that Scott's reviews will inspire Theme Park Insider readers to click over to the restaurants that they've visited over the past 12 months and submit their own rating and review. (We'll have the appropriate TPI restaurant link in each of Scott's posts here on the Blog Flume.)

    Thanks to Scott for joining us on this project, and I'm looking forward to reading what other TPI readers will have to say about the theme park industry's best restaurants.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    Arrr! Six Flags Great America gets into the game with Buccaneer Battle

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: May 12, 2009 at 4:42 PM

    Tuesday Park Visit: While Disney has Buzz Lightyear and Universal has Men in Black, Six Flags now offers its own shooter attraction. However, instead of using electronic guns, Six Flags has gone to something simpler and more reliable: Water!

    Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois today debuted its newest attraction, Buccaneer Battle, to the media. In seafaring tradition, Mr. Six (the chain's bald dancing guy) Christened the ride by breaking a bottle against the hull of one of the ships.

    Basically, the attraction is a pirate themed water ride in which each guest is armed with a water gun which can be used to squirt targets, other boats, and even “landlubbers” who are just passing by the attraction or shooting back at you with their own water cannons. Each boat holds eight people, with four on each side, and each side has 4 to 5 different targets which guests can shoot at with their water guns.

    One of the easiest and fun targets is a crab that shoots jets of water back at you! There are various opportunities, especially when turning corners in the pool, to shoot at other boats and individuals who are standing on shore near the front of the attraction. Of course, those landlubbers have their very own (and free to use) water cannons to return fire, often getting people on the ride absolutely soaked. At the end, if you are unlucky enough, there is a giant water pail that dumps water on guests exiting the ride.

    Afterwards, I was able to speak to two people who worked on the ride: Robert Dean of Mack Rides and Bill Scmell of Six Flags Design. This attraction's basic "Splash Battle" design is also at other parks such as Alton Towers, Legoland and Dollywood. However, Great America's is the largest and longest version of this ride, at 450 feet. Dean mentioned that the idea for this ride is not a new concept; rather the innovation came from combining old ideas to create a new one.

    Something different from many water shooters is all the guns on Buccaneer Battle are manually operated, meaning that instead of using electricity and pulling a trigger, guests need to turn a crank to get the water squirting. The ride also runs in "creek mode," meaning it never stops, which allows the attraction to get 1000-1200 riders per hour, which they hope will keep the lines down for this attraction.

    Schmell talked about how Six Flags, especially Great America, has dived into theming on their new attractions, starting with the Dark Knight Coaster and now with Buccaneer Battle. He mentioned that Great America will be getting a new attraction in the next two years, as well as a celebration in 2011 for Six Flags’ 50th Anniversary and Great America’s 40th Anniversary.

    For the most part, Buccaneer Battle is just simple fun. Probably one of the best way to describe it is one of those Disney water rides (It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.) with water guns (oh, the possibilities!). As with other shooter rides, its re-rideablity is huge since it’s a lot more fun to shoot at the people than the targets after awhile. The only downsides to the attraction were that the guns were manual; making it very tiresome after awhile, as well as a relatively short ride. Still, I high recommend everybody get their eye patches and pirate hats and meet me at Six Flags Great America to battle to the wet pirate death on Buccaneer Battle. It’s all good clean fun!

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: Going overboard at Pirates of the Caribbean

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 11, 2009 at 9:48 AM

    Hourly capacity is the Holy Grail of the theme park business. The more people you can put through an attraction in one hour, the shorter its line will be. The more people a park's attraction can put through, the more rides you can go on in one day. So, high hourly capacity = happy customers.

    It shouldn't surprise you then, to learn that Disney runs some of the highest capacity rides in the business. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the highest capacity ride on our side of the park was Pirates of Caribbean. We could put more than 2,000 people per hour through Pirates, without breaking much of a sweat.

    Pirates of the Caribbean

    But one summer (was it 1989 or 1990?), our hourly numbers were lagging. Counts dipped below 2,000, to 1,800 - then 1,600 - per hour, and our mid-day wait time was creeping over one hour.

    In those days, Pirates loaded boats in two side-by-side channels, which merged as the boats made a right turn into the upper grotto. Slow boats would linger there, allowing the boat from the other channel to catch up and pinch it at the merge point, stopping both boats and forcing attraction operators to come down and pull the two boats apart. That delay slowed the flow of boats (and guests) into the ride, crippling the hourly count.

    So what was management's solution?

    To put the most experienced operators at the load and tower positions at peak periods, to better time the dispatch of boats? No.

    To increase the volume of the ride pumps at the merge point, to blast more water and make the boats flow faster? Nope.

    Management's solution was... to put a cast member in the water at the merge point, to push the boats faster through the ride.

    Only male cast members were allowed into the water, as our Pirates costumes included shoes. (Ladies who worked Pirates wore their own black character shoes, and Disney didn't want to have to pay for employees' shoes that were ruined by getting wet.) We wore chest-high rubber waders that someone borrowed from maintenance, and would give each boat a shove as it drifted by.

    To get into the water, we'd have to stop the line at load, get into an empty boat and ride to the merge point. There, we'd hop over the side and into the water, while the person we were relieving would climb back in, for the ride back around to unload. You had to be very careful to go over the side of the boat, and not the front or the back. That way, you'd stay outside the ride flume, because if you got into the water inside the ride flume, well... as they say, dead men tell no tales.

    Now, one could question the wisdom of taking a boat out of commission every half hour to do the switch, when we were trying to increase the number of guests in the ride. But, hey, given the number of work safety rules this little scheme was violating, it should have been clear that wisdom wasn't exactly in play here. (Pirates SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] was explicit that all water pumps had to be turned off before any cast member entered the water. Oh, well.)

    Did it work? Supervisors eagerly checked our numbers throughout the day. And the hourly counts did tick up a bit, usually when less-experienced cast members went into the water, leaving the more experienced ones to work load and tower.

    After a few weeks, though, word came down one morning - do not get into the water. The waders were removed from the Pirates office, and the leads told the operators not to bother asking if we were going to do that again. We all suspected that a manager "higher up the chain" got word of what was happening, freaked out, and ordered the pushing stopped. Immediately.

    Later that week, a couple of us decided to address the hourly capacity problem our own way. A CM named Benny and I "froze" ourselves at the two loading positions for two hours, telling everyone else to bump around us. A CM named Marc did the same in tower. For those two hours, we worked as a slick machine, filling boats and dispatching them smoothly, with no merge point problems. The hourly counts? More than 2,800 guests per hour.

    Today, Pirates at Disney World loads in a single channel, eliminating the merge point issue. And I've heard that it often runs more than the 24 boats that we usually ran back in my day. But good, experienced cast members at the load position can still help boost the hourly count and draw down a line, at Pirates or any other attraction.

    Plus, I got a good story out of this.

    Tell us, in the comments, what was the stupidest thing that you've seen done by employees at a theme park in an effort to improve efficiency.

  • More theme park cast member stories
  • Comments (14) | Archive Link

    An insider's Q&A with Manta's design director, Brian Morrow

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 8, 2009 at 1:52 PM

    Brian MorrowSeaWorld Orlando's new Bolliger & Mabillard flying coaster, Manta, is up and running now to rave reviews. This week, Theme Park Insider readers submitted questions for Brian Morrow, Director of Design and Engineering at SeaWorld Orlando. Our thanks to Brian and the crew at SeaWorld for taking the time to respond.

    Q: What was the thought process of the creative team that led to the idea of a manta ray-themed coaster? Does the ride itself have an actual story (like Kraken and Journey to Atlantis do)?

    A: The flying coaster experience - the feeling of flying - was a natural fit to support a SeaWorld ride because we always want our shows, attractions and ride to get back to our core - the mysteries of the sea. It truly was a natural fit (rays "fly" underwater) and very easy to communicate visually which is the international language of our guests.

    The ride's top line creative feel is to go from "from seeing to being." At the minimum we want our guests to be inspired by the ocean we all share, be amazed at the underwater acrobatics of the rays and then experience that flight under the wings of the grandest ray of them all -- the manta.

    However these mega attractions need to have long life as they are large investments for Seaworld. To do this we lay in multiple story threads throughout the attraction that act as creative guides to help us make decisions along the design process. These threads will unfold to guests as they experience the attraction multiple times.

    The Manta attraction does have a back-story however it is told visually not verbally:

    Manta is located in the Lost Cay, a private cay off the coast of Key West where locals, artists and travels can escape from the busy streets of Key West. Here at the Lost Cay they can become reconnected and inspired by the ocean and the natural world we all share. At the Lost Cay man and nature are in perfect balance as indicated by the architecture of the cay which is nestled into the natural landscape and waterfalls.

    Others before us have traveled to the lost cay and became inspired by the majesty of the sea and interpreted their inspirations in various art forms including sand sculpture, mosaic tile, rock carvings, music, written word and glass. Even the light fixtures and handrails have been inspired by the sea.

    The ultimate manifestation of this inspiration is the Manta where we can fly and soar over the land and the sea under the wings of the magnificent Manta ray. From seeing to being...... diving deep and flying high.

    While in the queue and aquarium keep an eye for these works of art, Shamu even makes an appearance a few times amongst a large collection of rays and other creatures. I give you one hint to find a ray sculpture:

    Once you pass under the waterfall of the entry grotto you'll travel over a wooden bridge. Look to your left on the beach. There you will find a ray sand sculpture on the shore, complete with sea glass and shell details. Notice the footprints and hand marks in the sand. The artists working on the project really walked in the wet plaster and made the sand sculpture out of concrete while barefoot!

    Q: Did anything about Kraken inspire you while you were designing Manta?

    A: We learned from Kraken that guests do relate and appreciate the clever integration of the ride within the landscape and the setting in the park. These unique elements make the our coasters and rides very special to our guests. Also Kraken has pacing between large ride elements which was also duplicated at Manta allowing the guests to digest the large elements before entering the next.

    Q: How do you go about trying to make this or any coaster unique from others already built aside from the theming?

    A: The location of the coaster and it's interaction with the park and non riding guests is key. If Manta was simply sitting in the parking lot the ride experience would be severely degraded. However we're always focused on creating unique and special attractions (as our guests expect it) so we developed various ideas that would place Manta on the most do list of any vacationer to Orlando. The wing dip effect and the water fall near miss (AKA manta kiss) are probably the two most notable ride elements. However the entire attraction experience from the entry plaza, queue, stairs, loading platform and exit path all work together to make this flying coaster the most unique in the world.

    Q: Were there any difficulties to designing a coaster where its queue would be an attraction itself? What standout creatures I should look forward to seeing?

    A: The most complicated aspect of the Manta design was the site restraints. The site is located smack dab in the center of the park. We had to ensure the impact to the front gate experience of the park would not be degraded by the coaster. Great care was taken to create a ride layout that would compliment the front gate of the park but yet still deliver huge flying coaster thrills. When you see Manta, you'll notice the large ride elements are all located to back of the site and the unique lower elements are all at the front of the park, this was no accident.

    The interior queue and non ride aquarium attractions (really two attractions in one building) are very complex. We are the first coaster in the world to have life support systems for the habitats located under the coaster station! The majority of the facility guests never see, there even is an entire second floor to the main show building dedicated to animal support. So while you are walking along the queue think of all the staff working above you to ensure you get the best experience possible!

    A couple notable animals you'll encounter include the amazing Shark Ray also known as the Bow Mouth Guitar Fish. She is in the main ray tank most easily seen the cathedral cave viewing area of the queue. The fresh water rays found just before the stairs up to the Manta are my favorites, watch how differently they swim when compared to the salt water rays.

    In the non rider experience look for the Giant Pacific Octopus, he or she (we don't know yet) can actually solve puzzles and open jars! The leafy and weedy sea dragons are also a top pick for amazing animals to watch and learn about.

    Q: How does the lie-down dynamic change the safety tests performed? Does it affect the maximum allowable G-forces on the body? Also, what is the standard Safety Factor for a roller coaster like Manta? This one's a bit of a nerdy engineer question, but I'm curious.

    A: Answered by Mike Denninger Dir of Corp Rides and Maintenance

    While the prone ("flying") riding position of Manta puts riders in an orientation that differs from many other coasters, it does not alter the orientation of the axes by which biodynamic accelerations are measured.

    Great second question! The "flying" riding position of Manta reveals that the accelerations traditionally experienced by a rider on a sit down coaster like Kraken, are experienced quite differently when "flying" on Manta. For example, at the bottom of Kraken's large initial loop (after the first drop) a vertical acceleration in the rider's "eyes-down" or "z" direction is experienced. This makes the rider "feel" like they are "heavy". Now comparing to Manta, at the bottom of the dive loop (after the initial drop), a similar vertical acceleration as on Kraken is experienced, but this time the rider is "flying" on their back at the bottom of the loop, and the acceleration is experienced in the "eyes-back" or "x" direction by the rider. So instead of "feeling" heavy, the rider experiences a unique feeling of being "pulled" into the back of their seat. You might relate this feeling to that of accelerating in your automobile on the highway, and being pushed into the back of your seat. As you can see, this rotational difference of the coordinate system results in the need to review biodynamic measurements differently for a "flying" coaster like Manta than for another coaster like Kraken.

    With regard to maximum allowable G-forces, ASTM International has published a Standard that details the specifics of acceleration limits for all types of rides and we always adhere to all standards.

    Bolliger and Mabillard Consulting Engineers Inc., the same team of engineers and designers that worked on Montu, SheiKra, Griffon, Apollo's Chariot and other world class coasters in our parks, performed the engineering, design, and fabrication work for Manta. While Manta is a uniquely SeaWorld attraction, it is first a very safely-designed attraction. In addition to the exceptional engineering, calculations, and design work required to fabricate and construct Manta, sufficient safety factors were applied in all respects to the many systems operating on this great ride.

    Q: Is the entire course filled with sand? Was the decision to utilize sand based on the ride experience or complaints from park neighbors?

    A: Only the rails of Manta are filled with sand. This makes the coaster a bit louder than kraken as we wanted the ride to sound like a coaster. However we did not want it too loud to distract from the overall park experience. The riders are actually the loudest part of the ride...and we love to hear them scream!

    Q: Is there a platform below the coaster on the lift hill? If not, how do they let people off if they needed to evac the train if it got stuck?

    A: There is an evacuation platform located at the bottom of the lift (it's the gray colored device right at the base of the lift). Having the mobile platform allows the riders to have a clear view down as they climb the lift. You'll notice on Manta our riders actually start to scream as they climb the lift due to the visual fear of climbing higher and higher while face down under the Manta wings...its really a great part of the ride.

    Q: Why did you decide to enter this industry and how did you get involved?

    A: I can't remember a time when I did not want to work in the theme park industry. However I thought what I wanted to do was design roller coasters, but I learned quickly that what I really wanted to do was design attractions that create unique and special memories.

    My first job in the industry was as a food service safety intern at Six Flags AstroWorld. I took the job just to get my foot in the door, soon I moved to operations then to park design, all as in intern. Having the front line theme park experience is critical to success in the industry as our projects are not always rides we design restaurants, shows, animal habitats, retail venues even bathrooms. Having that front line experience as a team member always serves me well while working on new projects.

    Q: Now that Manta is finished, what's next for SeaWorld Orlando?

    A: Our department, Design and Engineering, is lucky to work in three of the Worlds of Discovery theme parks including SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove. With three world class parks we always have new projects in design. Of course I can't tell you about any of them but keep a watch for new construction walls throughout all the Worlds of Discovery parks in Orlando.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Disneyland or Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 7, 2009 at 10:31 PM

    One of my favorite memories while working on Theme Park Insider came last December, as I walked into Disneyland to shoot a photo essay on the newly renovated Sleeping Beauty's Castle. What made the moment so special was what I was thinking as I walked under the train station and into Town Square.

    "Wow, I've been to Disneyland and Disney World in the same week!"

    Disneyland Walt Disney World

    It's the double that many Disney fans dream about, but too few get to do: To visit the original Disney theme park, Disneyland, with its younger sibling, the world's most popular theme park, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I've done the double in one week on two occasions, last December and on an epic roadtrip in 1990, when I drove from Orlando to Anaheim in two and a half days.

    Which brings me to the vote of the week. If given the chance to visit just one of these two parks, for one day, which would you pick? Disneyland or the MK?

    I'm not putting any restrictions on this. You can pick the park you think the better, if you've been to both. Or you can pick the park you haven't been to, if you've been only to one. Whatever you want. But tell us in the comments why you picked the one you did.

    More stuff coming tomorrow before I call it a weekend.

    Comments (48) | Archive Link

    Disney shows that discounts move attendance in a down economy

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 6, 2009 at 12:47 PM

    We've got a discussion going about Disney's latest financial results. If you haven't seen the news: movies tanked, and theme park revenue is down. But theme park attendance is down just 1 percent in Orlando, and up 2 percent in Anaheim.

    How did attendance hold and revenue decline? Discounts. Massive discounts and less overall visitor spending.

    So that's the question: Would you rather discount and hold on to visitors, taking a loss in revenue from those who might have come anyway... or not discount and take a hit on attendance (which might lead to just as large, or even larger, revenue loss as well)?

    Personally, I've talked with many people in many industries who'd argue in favor of holding on to your customers and market share... at whatever cost. It's far easier, they say, to get existing customers to pay more to you, during a recovery, than to acquire new customers, especially ones that you lost.

    Of course, discounts alone don't get the job done. Theme parks need to promote and advertise their discounts, and Disney's done that with a vengeance.

    Universal's got some sweet discounts, too, but after the Super Bowl, I've seen few ads from them. I seen a few more from Busch/SeaWorld, but not nearly as many as from Disney. And I've seen zilch from Six Flags.

    If you offer a discount, and no one hears about it, does it really exist?

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    A first ride on SeaWorld Orlando's new roller coaster, Manta

    By Gareth H
    Published: May 5, 2009 at 11:17 AM

    Well, I just got back from my first ride on Manta at SeaWorld Orlando, and all I can say is WOW.

    The queue, at 40 minutes, was air conditioned, with great visuals throughout. Plenty of fish and stingray (In fact, hundreds of stingray) to look at.

    At the end of the queue it splits into two loading stations, being a single rider I was pushed up the Quick Queue Line (It would have been nice for an addition of a single rider line from the entrance), taking my total wait time to about 30 minutes.

    Once seated on the ride a loud motorised noise sounds and the seat lifts backwards so you are facing down. (Note: The seats are quite comfy, well padded, especially around the chest and leg area.)

    There is also an area to place your shoes and loose articles, something I love about Busch parks, so unless you have a purse, hangbag or backpack, etc, there is no real need to use the lockers located by the entrance.

    The journey up to the lot of the hill is great. Facing down the entire way, lookiing down on people staring up in awe, taking pictures.

    At the top there is no stopping, just a straight trip onto the ride and the loop.

    Although not the fastest ride it seems to make the loop even better, going from face down to lying on your back in a matter of seconds.

    Without ruining it too much, I willl say that there are some great water features (as expected at Seaworld), making sure anyone seated on the left hand side gets a little splash, very welcomed in Orlando.

    Some of the features are yet to be completed, including the underwater viewing area and aquarium, but with 3 weeks until official opening there is no doubt that it will fully operational on May 22nd.

    One thing I will mention, it is in test mode at the moment, I had to wait on the run back in, face down for 10 minutes due to operational issues.

    Some people may feel claustraphobic so be warned. Your legs are held in place and laying on your chest for that extended period could also be an issue.

    Overall, great ride, definately worth the pain and frustration of watching it go up for a year.

    Update from Robert: SeaWorld's offered to have Brian Morrow, Manta's design director, answer questions from TPI readers. Post 'em in the comments or e-mail 'em to me ASAP.

    Update 2: Here is the Brian Morrow interview.

    And here is an on-ride video of Gareth, taken a week later at the ride's media day:

    Comments (21) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: Waiting in line in the Magic Kingdom

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 5, 2009 at 8:42 AM

    This story was told to me my first summer in attractions at the Magic Kingdom. I assume it to be apocryphal, but I really, really wanted it to be true, because, like many apocryphal stories, it perfectly illustrates the way that theme park employees - and visitors - often feel about crowds in the parks.

    Three cast members were "playing in the park" on their day off. For fun, they decided to queue up in front of the door to the riverboat lead's office, around the corner from the Hall of Presidents entrance, in Liberty Square. Sure enough, within a minute, a couple walked up to them.

    "What are you in line for?" the man asked.

    "I don't know, but we're first!" the leader of the three replied, while the others did their best to keep straight faces.

    The man turned to his partner, shrugged, and joined the line.

    Within minutes on this busy summer day, two dozen others had joined the queue, which was now snaking toward the stockade. When the line reached the riverboat, cutting off the path toward the Haunted Mansion, the original three grinned at one another and the leader nodded. He turned to the first man who'd joined the queue.

    "Darn it, it's almost time for our lunch reservations at the castle. Gotta go."

    With that, the three walked over to the riverboat landing, suppressing laughs the whole way. The leader waved at the riverboat greeter, whom he knew, and said, "I don't know what's going on, but a huge queue is forming in front of the lead's office. You better check it out."

    The three then ran for it, as the greeter walked over to the front of the queue, wondering why a line would have formed in front of a unmarked (though well-themed) utility door.

    "Excuse me, sir," he asked the man who'd first joined the queue, "but what do you think you are in line for?"

    "I don't know," he replied. "But I'm first!"

  • More cast member stories
  • Comments (7) | Archive Link

    How safe can the summer of '09 be at America's theme parks?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 4, 2009 at 11:20 AM

    That's the question - and the challenge - that I have today, not just for the nation's theme parks, but for the fans who visit them, as well.

    We've long been advocates for theme park safety, here at Theme Park Insider. In 2001, we created Accident Watch, which empowered readers to track injury accidents at top theme and amusement parks, information which at that time was not being collected by any government agencies at the U.S. federal or state level. (A little trivia: that feature won an Online Journalism Award from Columbia University and the Online News Association, making the first time a major journalism award was given to a "crowdsourced" online feature, reported and written by readers.)

    After tracking hundreds of accidents at parks in the United States and around the world, plus my five years' experience working as an attractions operator, it's become apparent to me that the vast majority of injury accidents at theme parks could be prevented, and often by the people injured themselves.

    So let's do that.

    Let's make 2009 a summer when no person under the age of 21 dies at a U.S. theme park. With help from many Theme Park Insider readers, I've compiled a list of Top 10 theme park safety tips, and I'm asking everyone to read them before your next theme park visit. And to forward these tips to family and friends, too.

    More than that, I'm today asking all U.S. theme and amusement parks to publish these (or comparable) safety tips on their websites, with a link from the front page of their sites. Plus, to put safety tips in a prominent location on their free park guidemaps as well.

    The biggest traffic days at ThemeParkInsider.com each year are the ones when someone loses his or her life at a theme park. While I love welcoming new visitors to the TPI community, I don't want to see any more traffic surges for that reason again. I want this site to be filled with talk of vacations, thrills, storytelling, and good-natured debate among fans. None of us want to see any more stories about tragedy.

    So let us, all, do what we can to prevent it. I invite TPI readers to tell us what they are doing to help make their theme park visits safe. And I invite theme park representative to come on the site and tell us what they've done to accept our challenge, to help spread the word about how to stay safe at theme and amusement parks.

    Again, here's the link: Top 10 theme park safety tips

    Let's have a great summer.

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    Worlds of Fun debuts its new GCI roller coaster, Prowler

    By James Rao
    Published: May 1, 2009 at 10:46 PM

    Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri, opened the gates on their newest coaster, a Great Coasters International, Inc., wooden beast called Prowler. The event was a Season Passholder preview, scheduled on Friday, May 1, 2009, from 3 PM to 8 PM CDT.

    I had heard rumors about a savage beast in the area and headed out to investigate. I arrived at site of the beast's last known location, a sense of trepidation heavy in my soul. I gathered a safari together and we headed out into the wild to brave the beast known only as Prowler.

    My nervousness grew as I realized the military was also on hand guarding the local population against the beast.

    We saw one of the Prowler's first victims limping into view, the military closing in, trying to provide assistance.

    Despite our fear, we pushed onward, a soldier moving in to warn us of our impending doom.

    However, it was too late for us; our safari was already leaving the station. I assumed my position in the back of the convoy.

    The Prowler slowly drew us in, toying with us, as it lifted us 100 feet into the air.

    The Prowler tossed us around and we spiraled down attaining speeds of over 50 miles per hour.

    The savagery of the beast was unexpected as we crossed over its trail and fled into the heart of darkness.

    I started to black out at this point, and the next two minutes of my life were a blur as the Prowler nimbly chased us, hugging the terrain, banking ever so quickly from the left to the right, swerving effortlessly, leaping up, and pouncing down with a grace and savagery previously unseen in these parts.

    Toward the end of our flight, a ray of hope broke through my despair and it seemed we just might escape with our lives intact. One quick banking curve to the right, and we could see the safety of base camp ahead.

    Some of us cheered as we returned to safety, others bowed their heads and offered thanks to whatever deity had protected them this day.

    Those who survived the excursion were better for it, and joined together around a campfire, eating and drinking with gusto and verve. We had lived to fight another day.

    But our celebration was tainted, as we all knew that somewhere, out there in the wild, a beast was still waiting... lurking... ready to strike at a moment's notice.

    The Prowler is on the loose!

    I had a great time at the Season Passholder preview, and a great time riding Prowler. The coaster is smooth as silk, and fast as lightning. It hugs the terrain and turns on a dime, sweeping through the course effortlessly. While Prowler is not the longest, fastest, or best wooden coaster I have ever ridden (The Voyage at Holiday World still holds that honor), it is an excellent ride and further evidence that Great Coasters International, Inc., is simply the best wooden coaster maker in the world. Kudos to Worlds of Fun for their latest addition to the park!

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    New Star Tours film in production?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 1, 2009 at 2:08 PM

    There's a report that Lucasfilm is now shooting footage for a new version of the Star Tours film for the Disney theme parks.

    /film reports that yesterday was the third day of filming in the L.A. area for the production.

    Our source reveals that the revamp will incorporate prequel characters (like Naboo citizens and Geonosians) along with many aliens from the original trilogy (Aqualish. Bith, Rodians, etc). In the action sequence, the Star Tours vehicle is now going to be chased by Boba Fett. C3PO and R2-D2 are still the hosts, and Anthony Daniels will be recording his parts this week. Admiral Ackbar holographically communicates with the Star Tours vehicle.

    This isn't going to be a podrace, but another deep space chase, according to this report. No word on a debut date, though 2011 has been rumored in the past (40th anniversary of MK WDW?)

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: How long are you willing to wait?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: May 1, 2009 at 7:39 AM

    It's May, the last of the seasonal parks are (finally!) throwing open the gates, and soon the kids will be out of school. (Okay, here in Southern California, we've got another seven weeks to go for that.) That means that the lines at our favorite theme parks soon will be building, filling queues and testing patience.

    And so, our vote of the week. How long are you willing to wait? Not for the latest premier blockbuster, but for established rides, especially ones that you love to ride again and again.

    To help answer this question, perhaps it would help to think of a specific situation:

    You're ready to get in the line to ride (or see) your favorite theme park attraction. It's your favorite, so you have been on it before. You take a look at the posted wait time, which we will assume is accurate.

    At what number do you turn around and say, "uh, maybe later"?

    Or, let's put it another way, if the wait time were not posted, at what point during the wait would you start getting mad about the amount of time you had spent in line?

    The fact we're talking about re-rides is important. I know that many readers will wait just about any amount of time to go on a hot new ride - so I want to take that situation off the table. What's your upper limit for wait times for established theme park attractions?

    Tell us your ideas about wait times, in the comments, please.

    Comments (23) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: April 2009 Archive